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Flushing high school teacher recognized with FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence

Jul. 3, 2023 By Carlotta Mohamed

Brian Sweeney, an English and journalism teacher at Townsend Harris High School in Flushing, was recognized as one of six grand-prize winners of this year’s FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence

The FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence award, founded by Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, recognizes and celebrates extraordinary public school teachers who inspire learning through creativity, passion and commitment. This award is funded by The FLAG Foundation for Excellence in Education and by The Fuhrman Family Foundation.

Sweeney will receive a $25,000 cash prize for his personal use, and his school will receive a $10,000 grant for arts education and initiatives. 

Sweeney said he would allocate the $10,000 grant to a student-run literary press that he’s been working on with two teachers. They would strive to show student writers that they can be published authors today, reach out to other schools and give students across the city access, print students’ work and obtain high-quality supplies.

“I have nothing but gratitude for my students, my colleagues, and the FLAG Award committee,” Sweeney said. “Teaching means everything to me, and at the end of the day, it’s also just a lot of fun. I have so much fun working with some of the most courageous and passionate students in America and being recognized for that in this way is the honor of a lifetime.”

Sweeney strives to help his students reach their full potential. He oversees the school newspaper, The Classic, which has over 150 contributors and publishes daily. He also created and directed a writing center for students where newspaper editors serve as writing tutors. In the wake of the school’s declining reading performance, Sweeney helped spearhead the school’s reading initiative, which included an all-night Halloween Read-a-thon with breakout rooms such as Edgar Allan Poe ghost stories and s’mores. 

Through efforts and events such as these, students in the school have logged over a million minutes of independent reading this school year.

For high school seniors, Sweeney helped create, organize and pilot the senior symposium. This program challenges students in the spring of their senior year to participate in a research course in which they create a syllabus, choose a text as a focal point for their project and write a long-term research paper using resources from Queens College for presentation at the college library. 

Sweeney hopes that this initiative will be implemented for seniors across the boroughs in the future.

Sweeney also bridges the classroom and the real world by connecting his students with resources to execute their vision. For example, he helped one student partner with PEN America to create a podcast. The podcast became so successful that the student obtained press credentials from Universal Studios and other production companies to interview filmmakers and attend movie screenings. 

This year’s FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence received the most nominations in its history, with 1,337 submissions from students, parents, principals, and teachers. Thirty-five semifinalists were selected from the nominees and were required to complete a comprehensive application, participate in an interview process that included an interview with their principal, and submit supplementary material.

Additionally, 10 finalists will receive $10,000 for their personal use, and their schools will receive $5,000 each to use toward an arts-based initiative. And 19 semi-finalists will receive $1,000 for their personal use, and their schools will receive $1,000 each.

This year’s finalists of the FLAG Award from Queens include James Foster from East River Academy in Astoria; Jo Ann Westhall from P.S. 31Q in Bayside; Jorge Santos from the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Rego Park; Matthew Palermo from Epic High School South in South Ozone Park; and Ryuma Tanaka from I.S. 145Q Joseph Pulitzer in Jackson Heights. 

The semi-finalists include Amanda Papa of East Elmhurst Community School and Maureen Ownens of Forest Hills High School.  

An independent jury comprising education, community, and philanthropic leaders, including Dr. Betty A. Rosa, commissioner of Education and president of the University of the State of New York, selected the winners based on criteria that emphasize the student experience. Additional jury members include Anastasia Difino, one of last year’s winners; Richard Haynes, director of School Support at NYC Men Teach; Eugenie Tsai, the John and Barbara Vogelstein Sr. curator of Contemporary Art at the Brooklyn Museum; and Bob Hughes, director of K-12 Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Educators play such a huge part in our children’s lives, and they deserve recognition for their impact on the future lives of their students,” said Glenn Fuhrman, co-founder of The FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence. “We are grateful to recognize these hard-working and inspiring NYC public school teachers. Our children are in great hands with these teachers guiding them.”  

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